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Brahms: “Academic Festival Overture”

Most distinguished composers are sooner or later awarded the degree of doctor of music, honoris causa, for their work: Haydn had one from Oxford, Dvorak from Cambridge, and so on. Brahms was awarded his honorary degree by the University of Breslau (now Wroclaw, in Poland) on 11 May 1879.At the ceremony, which he was unable to attend, he was praised as a prince of “artis musicae severioris.” Two years later he offered his Academic Festival Overture for performance in Breslau as a mark of gratitude for the honor.The degree, the convocation, and the festive composition are all in the hallowed traditions of ancient and honorable academic institutions.

Just as ancient, though perhaps not quite so honorable, is carousing in the local Rathskeller, where students gather to dissipate the pressure of their academic pursuits. They hoist their steins and sing lustily of their aspirations, their loves, and their youth. Berlioz composed a fine scene for La Damnation de Faust (in Breslau, as a matter of fact) in which students and soldiers cross paths as they return home from their revels, the students singing their Latin drinking song. You know similar traditions from the Yale Whiffenpoofs and the West Point Glee Club. It was Brahms’s very clever notion for his celebration of things academic to concoct a potpourri of German drinking songs.

The Academic Festival Overture thus has many themes that amble along in a rather loose sonata. Boisterousness is at the fore, but always in a context of that almost religious depth of conviction that characterizes the wee hours in a drinking parlor. Ominous driving eighth notes pave the way for several of the faster themes; a timpani roll introduces the stirring brass chorale, based on a traditional song about building stately mansions. This passage has effected transition to the noble key of C major; and now in 4/4, we hear the Allegro proper as it consolidates the material from the long opening. The ringing transitional theme which follows is a hymn to the fatherland; the true second group, a fox song, commences with the animato in the two bassoons and continues with mock-fugal devices meant to suggest the archest form of learned display. After a brief development and straight recapitulation comes the great Gaudeamus igitur, through fountains of string passagework. “Let us live, then” students of the thirteenth century had written, “and be glad while youth is still before us.”

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